Google Earth Takes On the Prado's Masterworks

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Web users will be able to see the finest detail on 14 of the Prado Museum's masterpieces

Is that a pimple on her butt? It's hard to imagine why Flemish Renaissance artist Peter Paul Rubens would paint a blemish on the backside of one of the fleshy lovelies meant to represent beauty, charm and good cheer, but there's no denying that single red brushstroke in the midst of his central figure's creamy skin. At least not now that the painter's 1638 masterpiece The Three Graces is available in ultra-high definition on Google Earth.

Like most other major art museums, Madrid's Prado maintains an online gallery of its most important works. Now, thanks to a new Google project unveiled on Jan. 13, 14 of those masterpieces, including Velázquez's Las Meninas, El Greco's Nobleman with Hand on His Chest, Durer's Self-Portrait and Fra Angelico's Annunciation, have been reproduced in a resolution so fine — 14,000 megapixels — that not only individual brushstrokes but even the seams in the canvas and cracks in the varnish are visible. (Read a TIME story on the Prado.)

The reproductions allow viewers to navigate easily across large paintings like Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, moving from the serene portrait of Adam and Eve in paradise to Earth's naked bodies coupling inside a mussel shell or munching oversize pieces of fruit, or Hell's kissing pigs disguised as nuns, with an ease that — given the work's size and intricacy — would be denied a visitor standing before the actual 7-by-13-ft. (220 by 390 cm) triptych.

The technology, says Javier Rodríguez Zapatero, general manager of Google Earth Spain, makes it possible to "enjoy these magnificent works in a way never previously possible, obtaining details impossible to appreciate through [even] firsthand observation."

To obtain the pioneering images, technicians at the Prado used special cameras to take more than 8,200 photographs of the paintings over the course of three months. Those images were then connected and layered using the same Google Earth technology that allows a viewer to zoom in on a street or a house almost anywhere on the globe. (To see the works, users must download the Google Earth application, enter "Prado masterpieces" in the search window and then click on the icon representing the museum.)

"With prodigious realism, we've universalized knowledge of these works," said Prado director Miguel Zugaza in a presentation to the press. "We now have an amazing tool for researchers, teachers and art lovers."

But while those associated with the project stress the ways in which it will "democratize" access to these great works of European art, some experts are skeptical of its value.

"If it inspires people to go see the original, then I'm all for it," says New York University art historian Jonathan Browne. "But if it leads them to stay away from museums, then I'm not. Looking at a painting in person is a living experience. You communicate with the picture, and it communicates with you."

Asked whether he anticipated using the Google Earth program in his own research, Browne, a Velázquez expert, was adamant. "There's no benefit for the scholar," he said. "I've spent half a lifetime in front of Las Meninas, and I know that you can't replace the kind of free play you get from standing before a large canvas. Scale is important; surfaces are important — they play a role in making the painting vibrant. The difference between the original and a high-resolution image is the difference between a living thing and a corpse."

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